Semi-Pelagianism is a doctrine concerning divine grace that while repudiating pelagianism, nevertheless assigns a greater role to man's will than to God's grace in an individual's conversion to a religious way of life leading to salvation. The term itself was first applied to Molina's system of grace (see molinism), but usually it is restricted to the doctrine in the period between 427 and 529 of theologians in Africa and especially in southern Gaul who opposed augustine's final teaching on grace. Augustine's doctrine may be summarized as follows: Mankind shared in Adam's sin and therefore has become a massa damnationis from which no one can be extricated save by a special gift of divine grace that cannot be merited; but God in His inscrutable wisdom chooses some to be saved, and grants the graces that will infallibly but freely lead them to salvation. The number of the elect is set and can be neither increased nor decreased.
But Vitalis of Carthage and a community of monks at Hadrumetum, Africa (c. 427), found fault with these principles, asserting that they destroyed freedom of the will and all moral responsibility since wrongdoers could allege that they lacked God's grace. Augustine's reply to Vitalis (Letter 217) and to the monks in his De gratia et libero arbitrio and De correptione et gratia contains an excellent résumé of his arguments against the Semi-Pelagians: The grace of God is universally necessary for all, even for infants; it precedes and does not depend on human merits, and no act can be supernaturally meritorious without it; even the initial act of faith is itself a grace of God; the freedom to sin is actually slavery, for the will is efficaciously good and free only when vivified by grace; the predestination of some to glory is a gratuitous gift of God, for which He does not have to render an account; and finally, He is not guilty of injustice toward those who remain in the massa damnationis.
John Cassian. This explanation satisfied Vitalis and the community at Hadrumetum, but was opposed by the monks of Marseilles under John cassian (Collationes 3.5 and especially 13) and by hilary of arles. Their teaching, brought to Augustine's attention by two lay theologians, prosper of aquitaine and Hilary of Africa in 428–429, was as follows: The beginning of faith or the impulse to do good sometimes comes from man's will, unaided by grace; for, in spite of original sin, the will is still capable of performing good and salutary acts. Super-natural grace is necessary for salvation, but no special help from God is needed to persevere to the end; a fixed number of the elect is contrary to the universal salvific will of God; infants who died without Baptism were punished because God foresaw what sins they would have committed if they had lived longer.
Augustine answered them kindly in De praedestinatione sanctorum and De dono perseverantiae, for he himself had once held the same opinion about the initial act of faith, but had abandoned it after more careful study. The very nature of grace—its gratuitousness—leads logically to his teaching about final perseverance and predestination, which he defines as "the foreknowledge and preparation of those gifts whereby whoever are liberated (from sin), are most certainly liberated" (De dono perseverantiae 14); last of all he pointed out how absurd it was to punish children for something they might have done.
Prosper of Aquitaine. His critics were not convinced and the struggle continued after his death (430), when Prosper of Aquitaine appealed to the Roman See in behalf of his revered master. In 431 celestine i, in a letter to the bishops of southern Gaul, extolled Augustine's learning, sanctity, and loyalty to the Apostolic See, but gave no specific approval to his system of grace and predestination. Hence the Semi-Pelagians continued to circulate anti-Augustinian writings including the Praedestinatus of arnobius the younger and the Commonitorium of vincent of lerins. The latter, in Objectiones Vincentianae, accused Augustine of teaching that God had created the greater part of mankind for eternal reprobation and was the cause of man's sins. Anonymous treatises were likewise distributed, the most important of which was the Capitula objectionum Gallorum. Prosper wrote spirited replies against John Cassian, Vincent, and the critics in Gaul.
Faustus of Riez. A period of relative quiet followed the death of John Cassian (435), but ended with the emergence of faustus, Abbot of Lerins, who became bishop of Riez c. 462. A priest named Lucidus was then teaching that all unbaptized infants, sinners, and pagans were sent indiscriminately to hell; Christ did not die for all mankind; original sin had completely destroyed freedom of the will. Faustus forced Lucidus to retract these errors at a council of Arles c. 473, and at the request of his fellow bishops wrote De gratia Dei et libero arbitrio. He explicitly condemns the heresy of Pelagius. However, he declares that Adam's sin caused man's bodily, but not his spiritual death; he cites examples of the ancient patriarchs and pagans to show that man by himself can take the first step toward sanctification and also avoid sin; predestination is therefore merely God's foreknowledge of what man himself has freely decided. Thus man's ultimate fate depends more upon his own efforts than upon God's grace. Faustus's reputation for learning and holiness seems to have stilled all opposition to his doctrine, and Semi-Pelagianism prevailed in the theological circles of southern Gaul.
A reaction began with a letter of Pope gelasius i on Nov. 1, 493, in which he reproached certain bishops for tolerating attacks of the Semi-Pelagians against jerome and Augustine. In 520 Pope hormisdas was asked by Possessor, an African bishop residing in Constantinople, to give his opinion about the orthodoxy of Faustus. The pope replied that Faustus enjoyed no authority in the Church; this was an allusion to the so-called Gelasian decree that had placed the bishop of Riez's writings with those of heretics and persons under suspicion. Hormisdas added that the mind of the Holy See on questions concerning grace and free will was best expressed in the writings of Augustine, especially in those addressed to Prosper and Hilary of Arles, namely, De praedestinatione sanctorum and De dono perseverantiae. In 523, 12 African bishops, expelled by the Vandals and living in Sardinia, held a synod in which they adhered without reserve to Augustine's teaching on grace and free will. Their most learned member, fulgentius of ruspe, wrote Contra Faustum, which is no longer extant. But the most important opponent of the Semi-Pelagians was St. caesarius of arles.
Caesarius of Arles. Although trained at Lerins, Caesarius became an admirer of Augustine, and as archbishop of Arles (503), he labored to win over the members of the hierarchy to his way of thinking. Twelve bishops accepted his invitation to the second Council of Orange in 529, whose purpose was to settle the disputes about grace, free will, and predestination that had been troubling southern Gaul for more than a century. Before the sessions began, Caesarius had consulted the Holy See, and felix iv had sent him 24 propositions taken in their entirety from the works of Augustine and the Sententiae of Prosper. They were unanimously approved by the council, which added only one of its own. Its most important decisions were the following: Man's body and soul have been changed for the worse by Adam's sin (c. 1); sin, the death of the soul, has passed from Adam to the whole human race (c. 2); even those who are reborn and holy must always call upon God in order to persevere (c.10); the beginning of faith and the desire to believe is itself a gift of God (c. 5); had man's nature retained its original integrity it would still be totally incapable of performing a salutary act without the grace of God (c. 19); and works performed under the action of grace can acquire a claim to a supernatural reward (c. 18). The only reference to predestination comes in the profession of faith that follows the canons. "We not only refuse to believe that some are predestined by divine power to evil, but if there are any willing to believe so horrible a thing, in all detestation we anathematize them" [H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum, ed. A. Schönmetzer (Freiburg 1963) 371–397].
The acts of this Council of Orange were approved by boniface ii Jan. 25, 531. This gave it an ecumenical authority and it was later cited by the Council of trent. Semi-Pelagianism gradually died out; later theological disputes where this term occurs do not consider the pivotal problem of Semi-Pelagianism—the priority of the human will over the grace of God in beginning the work of salvation.
Bibliography: l. duchesne, L'Église au VIe siècle (Paris 1925). r. garrigou-lagrange, Predestination, tr. b. rose (St. Louis 1939). e. portaliÉ, A Guide to the Life and Thought of Saint Augustine (Chicago 1960). É. amann, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al., 15 v. (Paris 1903–50; Tables générales 1951) 14.2:1796–1850. prosper of aquitaine, Defense of St. Augustine, tr. p. de letter in Ancient Christian Writers, ed. j. quasten et al. (Westminster, Md.-London 1946–) 32, 1963. g. de plinval, a. fliche and v. martin, eds., Histoire de léglise depuis les origines jusqua'à nos jours (Paris 1935–) 4:397–419. r. h. weaver, Divine Grace and Human Agency: A Study of the Semi-Pelagian Controversy (Macon, Ga. 1996). b. r. rees, Pelagius, a Reluctant Heretic (Woodbridge 1988).
[s. j. mckenna]